Visualize This! A book review

Visualize this!

Visualization of data is one of the hottest topics these days. No matter where I go, people are taking a huge interest in it. Infographics are floating the Internet, for example. Companies are looking to refine their dashboards with better visuals. This was also apparent at the Gartner BI Summit earlier this week.

Despite the tremendous attention, there are only a few good books about this topic in the market. One of them is Nathan Yau’s title Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics. This week, I was able to finally read it all the way through. Did I enjoy reading it? Yes and no.

visualize this

Great concepts

Yau does a fine job with engaging the reader in the first part of the book. He explains a number of important fundamentals of visualization. This includes a process that he suggests people should follow:

  1. Get your data
  2. Ask a question (what do you want to know about it?)
  3. Choose your visualization tools
  4. Explore the data (look for trends, patterns, differences, etc.)
  5. Tell the story and design the visual

There is a lot of relevant information for business analytics professionals in this section. I particularly like that Yau urges his readers to clearly figure out what story they want to tell by visualizing data. This is often forgotten in the design of a dashboard (e.g. do I use a line-chart to show the trend, or do I use a bar chart to show the variances?)

“Approach visualization as if you were telling a story. What kind of story are you trying to tell? Is it a report, or is it a novel? Do you want to convince people that action is necessary?” Nathan Yau

The other chapters

The remaining chapters of the book contain valuable content as well. The author covers topics such as handling data and picking tools for building charts. Several chapters are dedicated towards describing how to best visualize certain problems (e.g. patterns, proportions, spatial relationships, etc.). Each section provides plenty of examples and some good ideas. I enjoyed working through this. But I do have to say that the content isn’t nearly as deep as let’s say Stephen Few’s material.

A good book for BI professionals?

So far so good. There is just one thing that you should know: Many chapters are also full of technical instructions that teach you how to build graphs and charts in the open source package R along with Adobe Illustrator. There is a lot of code in the book. Technical folks might enjoy this. But it is not my cup of tea and most BI professionals will hopefully build their charts using the corporate BI platform. To be honest, I went ahead and skipped those pages.

Visualize this!

Nathan Yau’s book Visualize this! is definitely a good book. I learned a few things here and there and took ample notes. It is also entertaining.  However, one has to understand that this is not necessarily a book dedicated towards BI professionals. Rather, this is a book for people who are looking to build infographics and other standalone visualizations. Nevertheless, you can tell that Nathan Yau is passionate about it and he inspired me to hone my skills. If you are looking for a deeper and more business oriented read, I would rather recommend the books by Stephen Few and Edward Tufte.

Stacked bar charts? Mixed feelings!

Stacked Bar Charts

Part-to-whole analysis is a common task in business. Let’s say we want to analyze how much different product groups contribute towards total revenue. Or we want to analyze our cost across different cost element groups. One way to do this visually is to leverage waterfall or pareto charts. Another popular option is to use stacked bar charts. Stacked bar charts are just a special type of bar chart. Instead of spreading the different categories out across the x or y axis, we stack them. But are they really useful? I have mixed feelings about them.

Single Stacked Bar Charts

Below is an example of a stacked bar chart. This provides an overview of the cost structure for a certain fiscal quarter. You can see that each stack in the chart represents a specific cost element group. The entire stack indicates the total cost.

Is this a good chart? Sort of. Notice how much effort is involved in reading the graph. Comparing the individual stacks requires effort (look at Commissions and Travel, for example). I also find it hard to read the specific values of each stack (how much was spent on advertising?).  On the positive side, this chart allows me to quickly identify the total cost. And I obtain a somewhat solid overview of how the money was spent. However, most business analytics platforms like Cognos 10 allow you to hover over a chart section to see the individual values. That makes the stacked bar chart above somewhat more useful.

Another way to display this – and I prefer this option – is to use a regular bar chart. Take a look:

Bar Chart CognosNotice that the comparison of the different cost categories is a lot easier. You can quickly read the individual values and the comparison between the cost elements is easy as well. But I am missing the total of my cost. We would either have to calculate that or include the information in a different manner. The stacked bar chart therefore does not really impress me in this type of setting.

Multiple Instances

So, should we toss those stacked bar charts then? Not necessarily. Take a look the next example. The analysis is now extended to the entire fiscal year. There are multiple instances of the stacked bar chart.

Stacked Bar Charts Cognos

Notice how different this looks. You can quickly see that total cost have increased in the last quarter (after decreasing slightly). I am also able to see how the different cost elements have changed throughout the fiscal year (look at advertising, for example). The stacked bar chart is now much more useful. I personally like this. But what about the traditional bar chart in this situation? Let’s take a look:

Multiple Bar Charts

The graph invites you to compare the cost composition quarter by quarter. The comparison between different quarters is also not difficult. The only problem with this version is that the overall cost are difficult to assess.  Both versions have their strengths and weaknesses.

Stacked Bar Charts – Summary

Stacked bar charts are certainly not bad. But as the examples above show, they are stronger in a multi-instance setting. But even then, you need to be careful: stacked bar graphs tend to look strange when you have negative values (give it a try!). The single stack is not that strong as compared to the traditional bar chart. Both offer different insights. And let’s not forget about waterfall and pareto charts as well.

From an analysis point of view, I would probably want to switch between the different charts. IBM Cognos 10 provide users with the ability to change chart types on the fly. That makes the analysis of data very interactive.

Have you added stacked bar charts to your toolbox? If yes, make sure to use them in the right circumstances.

P.S.: I will take a look at stacked area charts in February.

Better Forecasting And Budgeting Starts With Analysis – IBM Cognos 10 in Action

FORECAST ANALYSIS

Much has been written about developing better forecasting and budgeting templates or improving the overall process. But to my surprise there is hardly any focus on the role of analysis. I have seen many organizations where managers ‘survive’ the forecasting and budgeting cycle without ever spending time performing meaningful analysis of their data. They simply focus on getting the numbers in to satisfy finance and senior management.

This is a wasted opportunity. People should use that occasion to gain insights about their business. Lack thereof is likely to result in forecasts and budgets that are not meaningful. Some of you might say: ‘Wait a second! Managers do obtain some reports.’ True. They get the classic variance report with a ton of detail. But working with this is time-consuming and it is extremely difficult to identify critical trends and to see the big picture.

Forecasting Report
A traditional variance report. What does it tell us?

BETTER FORECASTING WITH ANALYSIS

Using a Business Analytics platform like IBM Cognos 10, you can make is easier for managers to gain critical insights. Here are a few ideas that you might find useful. Let’s look at the example of a sales manager for a European division of a global company. This manager has to forecast revenue and associated expense.

1. GO VISUAL

First of all, toss those detailed variance reports. Line of Business managers will most likely not obtain any information from them. Human beings do much better processing visual information. You can find a lot of information about this topic on this blog. So, try to swap out those hundreds of data points with a few meaningful charts. Your teams will be thankful.

2. CONSIDER EXTERNAL DATA

The variance report does not really tell us anything about our business potential. We could therefore consider looking at external data such as market trends. More and more of my clients do that. It helps them with assessing their overall position and it also helps them set realistic but ambitious targets. The example below shows that market growth in Europe is a bit limited compared to North America and Asia.

Market Size chart
The situation in Europe is not looking good

3. STUDY HISTORY

History is not necessarily a predictor of the future. But we should not ignore it. We might be able to identify seasonality and to detect general trends. Pick the critical measures. Line charts are usually a great choice to display this type of data. The example below shows that revenue is cyclical and that the general trend is positive:

Revenue Reporting
On the rise: Revenue trend for Europe

 

4. CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE

One of the nice things about modern Business Analytics tools like Cognos 10 is that we can view data from multiple different angles. Use that capability to your advantage! Try to explore different perspectives. Look at the example above. Now, compare this to the view below. Same data. Just a simple change in Cognos 10:

IBM Cognos 10 dashboard
A different perspective

Our biggest months used to be in summer time. But that has shifted towards year-end. Same data – different perspective. Explore!

5. BENCHMARK YOURSELF

It makes sense to learn from others as well. We could do some internal benchmarking as well. In our example, we could look at deal sizes (looks like Europe’s deals are growing nicely and they are above company average):

Deal size chart
The average deal has grown bigger

Ok. That sounds good. But does the deal size come at a cost? Once again, let’s do some internal benchmarking and look at the ratio of expenses and the associated revenue. It looks like Europe is slightly higher which might explain the higher deal size.

Expense Ration chart
Every penny that is earned in Europe requires higher expenses

That information is valuable. It also leads us to think further and to ask some critical questions (Does it make sense to review our spending? Does the higher spending lead to bigger deals?). We should obviously not stop right here.

6. LOOK AT LEADING INDICATORS

What about other non-financial data as well? For revenue budgeting, I might also want to look at a leading indicator like customer satisfaction. And I might also want to look at our track record of winning deals (win-loss-ratio). Take a look:

Customer satisfaction chart
Customer satisfaction is rising again. A leading indicator for sales?

BETTER INSIGHTS

This is a simple example. The manager is now equipped with a few key insights:

  • Market growth is low
  • Our revenue trend is still positive
  • Buying patterns have shifted
  • Our strategy of investing in selling activities has increased the deal size
  • Customer satisfaction is increasing which could lead to higher sales

These are valuable insights. And it did not take much time to obtain them. The old variance report would not have provided that insight and it would have consumed a lot of time.

Try to incorporate a few of those ideas in your forecasting and budgeting processes. Doing this with spreadsheets is obviously difficult and probably explains why so many organizations are stuck with the traditional approach. Business Analytics software like IBM Cognos 10 makes it a lot easier to do that.

Visual Analytics – The new frontier? (Guest Post)

WHAT IS VISUAL ANALYTICS – BY DR JOERN KOHLHAMMER

Massive sets of data are collected and stored in many areas today. As the volumes of data available to business people or scientists increase, it becomes harder and harder to use the data effectively. Keeping up to date with the flood of data using standard tools for data management and analysis is far from easy. The field of visual analytics tries to provide people with better and more effective ways to understand and analyze these massive data sets, while helping them to follow up on their findings immediately, in real-time. Visual analytics integrates the analytic capabilities of the computer and the abilities of the human. This means, the human is empowered to take control of the analytical process; he or she is not just the final stage of a reporting process. Visual analytics sheds light on unexpected and hidden insights, which may lead to innovation and increase profits. For example, many key performance indicators are simply calculated using statistical models. But the true relations between data, models and business objectives often remain unclear. If visualization is included as an integral part of the analysis process then comprehension of the models as well as of the data is increased. Errors in the basic assumptions of the models can be recognized early on and newly discovered dependencies in the data can lead to new and possibly better reporting indices. Continue reading “Visual Analytics – The new frontier? (Guest Post)”

A Cognos 10 Dashboard

Cognos 10 offers a huge library of charts. Several new types were added in the last release. There are now over 160 different charts available. Amongst the new additions, you will also find Stephen Few’s bullet charts. They nicely complement the existing sparklines that were already available in version 8.4. Cognos 10 also provides new and enhanced color palettes that help design beautiful reporting objects. Overall, Cognos 10 offers some really cool options for building effective dashboards.

A SAMPLE DASHBOARD

My colleague and friend Paul sat down last week to quickly create a sample dashboard in Cognos 10 using the new stuff. He took the new charts and also applied one of the palettes. Take a look – I love it! It’s simple but very effective. As a sales executive, I will immediately obtain an overview of my business.

Cognos Sales Dashboard

ACTIVE REPORT

Bullet charts and sparklines are also available for Active Reports. You can therefore build awesome looking dashboards for online and offline use. Even better: they also work with the new iPad app.

If you happen to attend BAForum in Las Vegas in a few weeks from now, make sure to look for some the sessions that discuss Cognos 10 and dashboarding techniques in detail.

 

 

The new IBM Cognos Mobile iPad app is nice!

Just a quick post for today. It’s been a super busy week with stops in Barcelona, Munich and London. While sitting in the lounge in Munich, I was delighted to see that the IBM Cognos Mobile iPad app had been approved for the Apple iTunes store. A perfect opportunity to download it and test the offline capabilities at 33000ft cruising altitude. (I cannot wait to take the the app online this weekend!)

CLEAN AND SIMPLE

Once our plane had taken off, I pulled out my iPad and launched the app. European flights do not have WIFI, yet. But the app does support offline content. And so I was sitting there in seat 5D somewhere above Frankfurt and was able to test some of the dashboards and reports. Being able to work offline is a huge advantage, from my point of view. I have personally encountered so many situations where the wireless network was either poor or simply not accessible. But back to the Cognos app: The initial impression is excellent. The interface is nice and clean. It does not take any time at all to get up and running. Navigation is intuitive and all the usual finger movements (swiping, pointing etc.) work flawlessly.

IBM Cognos iPad
Offline content

Continue reading “The new IBM Cognos Mobile iPad app is nice!”

Why you need Many Eyes

MANY EYES FOR VISUALIZATIONS

Have you heard of Many Eyes? Strange name, huh? Well, Many Eyes is a pretty cool and simple service on the web that let’s you visualize and explore data. Need a quick word cloud of Steve Job’s last speech? Sure. Just go to Many Eyes and create it. Need a quick scatter plot of your hear rate and running pace? Just go to Many Eyes and create it there.

IBM Many Eyes

Continue reading “Why you need Many Eyes”

A few thoughts about gauge charts

Let me start by saying an obvious thing: Gauge charts do deserve some recognition. Actually, they deserve a medal – a medal for being the most controversial chart type in history.

When I first saw a gauge chart, I was impressed. They looked pretty cool. Things changed when I got involved with my first BI project. A closer look revealed that these charts are actually pretty tough to look at. But let’s back up and start from the beginning.

GAUGE CHART

Gauge charts allow us to visualize data in a way that resembles a real-life speedometer needle or a regular gauge. They usually  display a single key measure. The outer scale of the gauge is often color-coded to provide additional performance context (green for good, red for bad). Below is a typical example:

Gauge Charts
Feels like driving a car?

Continue reading “A few thoughts about gauge charts”

What “Brain Rules” teaches us about Business Analytics

The other day I took some time to review a few chapters of John Medina’s excellent book ‘Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School‘. It is a great read. There are a lot of interesting stories and insights that apply to various different aspects of our lives. One chapter in particular is quite relevant for Business Analytics: Rule #10 – Vision trumps all other senses.

THE POWER OF VISION

Dashboard DesignAccording to Medina, our brains devote over half of their resources to vision. The nerves between our eyes and our brains are much more powerful than those of our other senses. As a result, pictures allow us to absorb information much quicker and the information also tends to be stickier in our brains. Medina says:”Put simply, the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized – and recalled”.

THE PROBLEM WITH TEXT

Text on the other hand is very inefficient. It takes us longer to recognize information and we are likely to retain less of it. Medina states that each letter is technically a separate picture. When we see words we see tons of little images and our brains have a harder time to process the information. George Bernhard Shaw once said “Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap.”

THE LESSON FOR BUSINESS ANALYTICS

Brain Rules
A picture says more than a thousand words

Most of this is common sense, but many of us still choose to ignore these facts. We create long reports with hundreds of columns and numbers. We spend hours analyzing these numbers. And we have a hard time recognizing the important patterns. If we want to follow Medina’s advice, we should visualize our data, instead. This not only speeds up our ability to recognize patterns and dependencies, but it should also help us with retaining the information. The old saying goes “A picture says more than a thousand words”, right?

AN EXPERIMENT

Dashboarding guru Stephen Few created a nice little experiment that shows how true and important this insight is. Take a look at the simple report below. It shows revenue numbers for two regions. Spend about 30 seconds to study the table. Then look away ask yourself what you saw.

What do you see here?

Most people are only able to recall three to four different things from the table. The bigger picture usually remains hidden for a while. Now, take a look at the chart below. This is the same data. What do you see now?

Same information...

Notice the difference? The chart is a lot easier to read and chances are that you are able to retain a lot more information.

THE SIMPLE LESSON

John Medina’s advice can be extremely valuable for all of us. We should strive to move away from pure number and text based reports. Instead we should visualize as much data as possible. But that requires us to spend some time to learn more about charting techniques. There are a lot of different options and not all of them are appropriate for any given set of data. You can find a bunch of valuable tips on this blog to get started. Also, utilize the appropriate Business Analytics platform. Cognos 10 offers over 160 differrent chart types, for example.

So, toss those tables and go visual. Inspect your current repository of reports and think about how you can improve in this area.

Listen to John Medina:

Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effect of images.”

 

The Eternal Timeline – Visualizing Unstructured Information

Is history boring? Sometimes. But it really shouldn’t be. There is too much to learn and there is an abundance of stories that are too fascinating to be ignored. Making these stories visible in an engaging manner is a challenge. And it is easy to get it wrong. Just think back to school: chances are you probably had a history teacher that managed to bore you to tears (Bueller, Bueller, Bueller).

Well, two of my friends got it right. Think about how hard it is to properly visualize structured information in some cases. But Bernhard Lermann and Jens Semjan decided to go for a tougher challenge: Visualize history in the form of long timelines. Some of you might remember that I wrote about their fun and extremely cool exhibit called ‘The Eternal Timeline’. Given the success of the exhibit, Jens and Bernhard just posted a short video. Sit back and enjoy the eternal timeline show!